Writers on Writing: My Interview with Meg Wolitzer
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Although I arrived late to the work of New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer, the cliché, “Better late than never” rings completely true for me. After reading and loving Belzhar, her first young adult novel (now out in paperback), I knew Wolitzer was a writer I needed to follow and to learn from.
Described as “subtly plotted and painfully beautiful” by Brown Girl Dreaming author, Jaqueline Woodson, Belzhar is about a young girl named Jam who leaves her home in New Jersey to attend a therapeutic boarding school in Vermont after the devastating loss of her boyfriend. She takes a Special Topics English class in which she and four other students study the work of Sylvia Plath and enter a mysterious other world known as Belzhar.
I related so strongly to the Special Topics class. It reminded me of a Freshman History Seminar class I had taken as a freshman in college. He taught me how to analyze and interpret my away-from-home college experience in the context of history and art. I am thankful we kept in touch through snail mail for several years until his passing in 1995.
Belzhar also reminded me of the intensity of emotions all of us go through in adolescence. The well-crafted story and clever plot twists made it suspenseful and exciting.
Wanting to read more of Wolitzer’s work, I picked up and devoured one of her adult novels, The Interestings. The book chronicles the lives of six teenagers from when they first meet at a summer camp for the arts to when they’re in their mid-50s. I could relate to so many things in the book—I, too, attended overnight camp for six summers, an experience that meant so much to me and have lived in and raised my children in New York City (where much of the book is set) my entire adult life.
In The Interestings, Wolitzer tells a thought provoking story and creates layered and relatable characters. She weaves the characters’ individual and shared stories into something really beautiful. She also tackles myriad topics including friendship, love, jealousy, envy and the role of talent and money in our lives and how they affect our views of ourselves and others. I wept while reading the last pages of the book and plan to read it again, it was that good.
To quote Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, “What really knocks me out is a book, when you’re all done reading it, you wished the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you can call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” I can completely relate to this when it comes to Wolitzer and her work.
Belzhar and The Interestings spoke to me so deeply. While reading them, I actually felt like Wolitzer had written them just for me (as if). I’m sure many of her fans feel the same about her work. I am happy that I’ve had the opportunity to meet Wolitzer in person a few times at various conferences (see her in the photo above with editor extraordinaire Julie Strauss-Gabel at the annual SCBWI conference in LA) and am honored to share the following interview she was kind enough to do via email.
EZ: You’ve been so successful writing novels for adults. What made you want to write for kids, first with your middle grade novel, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman and now with your first young adult novel, Belzhar?
MW: It certainly had something to do with the fact that I had kids in the house. The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman is about a group of kids who meet at a national Scrabble tournament. My own son had been a big Scrabble fan, as I always was (and still am). So it was natural for me to write about the game, and if I wanted to remind myself of how lively and engaging books for young readers can be, I just had to go into his room and grab something off the shelf. Later on, my son introduced me to a YA book he loved, and I admired the intensity of the novel, the fact that it didn’t shy away from strong emotions. But above and beyond all that, I’ve always written about adolescents in my novels for adults. It’s a time that’s still very vivid for me, and I continue to be drawn to write about it and read about it.
EZ: In writing your books for children and teens, did you find that you had to adjust your usual writing style to speak to a younger audience? And were there dramatic differences for you during the editing process across the three categories—middle grade, young adult and adult?
MW: I try to write from my own sensibility regardless of the age group. Because Belzhar is in first-person, I needed to be true to Jam’s voice and rhythms as she tells the story her way. She is a bit breathless, and there’s a lot she needs to say. I guess my approach is to try and write the book that I would’ve wanted to find on the shelf at different ages; sometimes, of course, those ages have overlaps. I don’t think the editing process has differed greatly for me. I always like having a strong editor, because sometimes I can get so close to my manuscript that it’s hard to see some important things about it. My editors (I have one for my adult books, and one for my YA and middle grade books) are both extremely smart people whom I totally trust.
EZ: What are your ultimate goals in writing—and by that I mean are you trying to share experiences, teach lessons, work though your own questions or a bit of all of the above? What inspires you to write and what magic does writing hold for you?
MW: I often quote the Zadie Smith line: “When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world.” That’s how I feel, too. Good writing inspires me, and so does the sense that the writer had an interesting idea that he or she wanted to work out over the course of a book. So it’s sort of like “book as project.” I love the way writing absorbs you: other people’s writing, and sometimes even one’s own.
EZ: Any tips for new or aspiring writers that you can share, especially for those who want to write for children/young adults?
MW: Read books in which you can feel the writer’s own excitement. That’s a great way to be connected to the whole process. As for writing books for younger readers, you might try out your own work on a young person. I have had great experiences doing this. A good reader will tell you when it doesn’t sound convincing, and also when it does.
EZ: Can you share anything about your upcoming books?
MW: My next book is for adults; I think it’s too soon to say much about it. Then I will do another YA book. Again, I don’t think I’d better say anything, except to say I’m excited about both.
EZ: Any final words for writers or readers?
MW: I guess for the writers, I would try to tell them not to be discouraged. Read good things, take breaks, find someone who can be a “designated reader,” by which I mean someone whose taste in books you trust, and who wishes you well. The more you work, the more confident and accomplished you’ll become—even if that means only working here and there, because maybe you have very young children at home and not a lot of childcare, or a full-time job, or complicated circumstances. Try to print out a little of your writing and read it later in the day, so that you essentially stay in touch with your own voice, your own sensibility. And for the readers, I would say that I share the thrill you probably have of finding a writer you love. When that happens to me, I always want to tell everyone about that writer.
In closing, I thought I’d share the following quote by Wolitzer on her Amazon.com bio:
“I am a fiction writer who, like most writers, is happiest when I’m working. I have somewhat erratic work habits, and can for weeks without producing much, then suddenly find myself in a whirlwind of productivity that lasts a long time and occupies most of my waking hours. Between those productive bouts I tend to read a lot, mostly contemporary novels, an activity that serves as a kind of re-fueling that I seem to need. I love being excited and keyed up by other people’s novels; the best of them remind me of how powerful fiction can be.”
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